Written by: Hiyaguha Cohen
May 11, 2020
- Before CORVID-19, at least 33 percent of older Americans were deeply lonely, with health effects such as memory loss, increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, mental health problems, and a significant reduction in lifespan. For orders that stay at home, the numbers are even higher.
- Experts have worked to develop artificial intelligence / robot solutions that can read and respond to human emotions and provide camaraderie.
- Early tests are promising for robot companions who can also be programmed as household helpers.
Loneliness is common
As we wrote earlier, loneliness is a major public health problem that has life-shortening effects equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness due to isolation is a particular problem for seniors, especially now that so many are looking for protection. 28 percent of the over 65s in the United States live alone, and this percentage increases with age. For example, half of all women in the US who are over 75 years old live alone. Living alone does not necessarily lead to loneliness, but there is certainly a strong correlation. In an AARP study, 30 percent of the 2,000 subjects between the ages of 50 and 80 said they did not contact family or friends more than once a week. And a British study found that over nine million citizens claim to be "always or often" lonely. For the 35.7 million Americans living alone during a pandemic, this means that they may not have meaningful social contact for months. Since the closures, about a third of American adults have reported feeling more lonely than usual.
Loneliness causes health problems
The health effects of isolation and loneliness have been observed in numerous studies. In the AARP study mentioned above, those who lacked comradeship or felt socially isolated were more than twice as likely to be at fair or poor health as those who were rarely isolated or alone. And those who felt isolated had psychological problems eight times more often. Previous studies that we reported showed that loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 50 percent and equates to obesity as a risk factor.
Siri or Alexa with emotions
Perhaps you were impressed when you watched the relationship that you or your loved ones have with Siri, or whatever voice drives your technology. Everyone who has Alexa knows how creepy the voice in the box can seem lifelike. When Alexa reminds you to take your pills or tells you that she doesn't understand your question, it's almost like having a living, breathing person in the room. Almost, but not entirely. Alexa simply barks commands or helps with tasks. There is not enough substance to build a relationship.
But what if Alexa could ask how you feel and offer comfort when you show some kind of distress? Would your loneliness decrease? What if Alexa looked cute or humanoid rather than a black box? Would an emotionally intelligent Alexa relieve your loneliness?
Science relies on it. Wherever there is a problem, industry discovers a way to make a profit. As a result, scientists have worked to develop technologies that allow you to speak to your device and get the kind of response that a compassionate friend could offer.
Teddy bear companions who feel your pain
Like the Android Data in Star Trek, which wanted an "emotion chip", software programs lack the ability to express and react to feelings. It is this difference that traditionally distinguishes man from machine. However, this difference could soon become obsolete as scientists develop programs that can respond to verbal cues by providing support and understanding.
At the University of Alberta, researchers program teddy bears that come with preprogrammed software to accompany older people who live alone. The cute cuddly toys are all called "Ana", which stands for Automated Nanny Agent. The anas are still developing. The programmers taught them how to identify human emotions by feeding thousands of tweets into the software. Each tweet is marked with a hashtag that indicates an emotion – for example, “#Happy! I'm going to graduate today ”or“ #Angry. Property taxes increased by 20%. “They also fed thousands of film scripts into the software so that it could“ learn ”appropriate responses to expressions of emotions. Scientists are currently refining the software so that their answers are appropriate. They don't want the little anas to learn to respond to love by hitting their owners and "Snap out it!" as Cher did to Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vzdyo-Qe960 [/ embed]
The study leader Osmar Zaiane, director of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute, says: “We imagine a device that is emotionally intelligent. When an older person can say "I'm tired" or "It's nice outside" or tells a story about their day – and receives an answer that continues the conversation and occupies them. "
So far, so good. Dr. Zaiane says the initial results show that the anas actually learn appropriate answers and the subjects respond to the emotional dialogue.
Humanoids to fight loneliness?
Several companies already have robots on the market to perform functions previously performed by humans. For example, SoftBank Robotics offers a lifelike model called "Pepper" and another called "Nao" that companies can use to greet customers. Recognize the age, gender, mood, etc. of the customer and make appropriate recommendations. Provide services and inform customers about company offers. The robots don't look like someone to keep your kids up to date – they look like robots – but like cute R2D2 robots, and they move well.
The fact is that there are already very human-looking robots and experts say that their emotional programs can be developed to such an extent that they experience independent, albeit rudimentary, emotions and form bonds with people. If you are a science fiction fan, you may fear that such a development could go very wrong. In the meantime, however, the field certainly offers hope for the lonely or at least the lonely with very deep pockets.
Why not just get a beagle?
While a pet can certainly cushion loneliness, many seniors live in buildings or facilities where pets are not allowed. Pets also need care – walking, feeding – that some seniors cannot give. In addition, researchers believe that they can optimize devices such as Ana so that they act as all-round helpers for home care. Future versions could for example:
- Track sleep and make recommendations to improve sleep, or even run bedtime programs to promote good recovery.
- Track medication and remember which medications to take and when.
- Monitor moods and share important information with family members.
- Monitor health indicators like blood pressure and share the results with doctors.
Are we already there?
The fact is that science is just a breath away from taking Siri to the next level. Chances are that our devices will be able to interact with us on a more human level within a few years. Robots are already becoming an integral part of business and retail environments, and it makes sense that as long as loneliness persists, people will try to find ways to make these robots friendlier and more useful. Those who fear a robot apocalypse will soon find that they sleep with an ana, just like those who avoided cell phones 10 years ago are now wearing the latest version of Samsung or Apple. And like cell phones, some people will be early adopters and others will be late adopters – but in the end, everyone will probably become adopters to some degree, even if it's just about cleaning and preparing dinner.